Thanks to a relatively small but still impressive discography, we tend to associate Dame Janet Baker with a specific body of solo and operatic repertoire by such European-born composers such as Elgar, Britten, Mahler, Berlioz, Schubert, Handel, and Mozart. It might surprise you to learn that she premiered one of the most important pieces of 20th-century American vocal music, Dominic Argento’s Pulitzer Prize-winning song cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, in recital in Minneapolis with pianist Martin Isepp on January 5, 1975. That concert, which also included selections by Wolf, Fauré, Duparc, and Debussy, was recorded for broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio and released on the d’Note label back in the mid-1990s. The disc is available through various online sources, but when I stumbled upon a cheap used copy at a local CD store yesterday–horribly misfiled, I might add–I could hardly believe my eyes. Once home, I cued up the Argento. Within a few minutes, I was completely captivated; by the end, I was absolutely speechless.
Here’s the opening song of the cycle, “The Diary (April, 1919)”:
From the Diary of Virginia Woolf : “The Diary (April, 1919)” – Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano, and Martin Isepp, piano
“What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something…so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk…in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life.”
In his 2004 autobiography, Catalogue Raisonne as Memoir: A Composer’s Life, Argento mentions that because of their busy touring schedules, neither Baker nor Isepp had a chance to run through the work together until just a few days prior to debuting it. After the final rehearsal on the morning of the performance, Baker asked the composer to critique her interpretation. “I have nothing to tell you,” he said, “except that I’m a blubbering mass of gratitude and will never be able to thank you enough.”